My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Amherst Bulletin - August 13, 2010

There are four articles/opeds related to education in this week's Bulletin, so I'm going to post links to each and my own brief commentary here.

First, there is a large (front-page) article on the number of families who are choosing to leave the Amherst public schools ( I thought this article was really well done (very thorough, very balanced), though I do wish it had noted the number of parents in sort of high profile positions who are also leaving our public schools (former Regional SC members, principals in our public schools, override leaders, college presidents, etc.). I believe we need to acknowledge that our schools are NOT serving all children well, and we need to develop a specific plan to help our schools live up to their true potential of serving 'every child, every day' so that families will choose to stay in our schools. I was also really disappointed by Andy's comments at the end of this article -- those are precisely the types of comments that leave more people to leave, because they put the blame on the parents/kids who are leaving, and not on our schools, and thus don't give other parents hope that things will in fact change.

Second, there is a well done oped by the Bulletin editors on this issue ( I really agree with the statement that the investigation " ... must inform the changes the system undertakes in the years ahead." I had asked for exit surveys to be given to families who leave two years ago (2008), but Jere Hochman didn't support gathering this data. That is why I'm very glad the SC voted this year to require such surveys, so that we could indeed understand why some families are opting out.

Third, my monthly Education Matters column appears (, which I believe speaks for itself.

Finally, the former Regional SC chair has a piece which largely criticizes me and Steve (, which I found somewhat ironic since Farshid supposedly resigned in order to allow the Regional SC to function in a more constructive way (which surely is harder to do when the former chair consistently engages in personal attacks on some current SC members in the press). I will add two brief additional points.
  • In terms of Farshid's statement re. words said by me and Steve one night late in a parking lot -- I worked very closely with Farshid throughout much of last year (in my role as vice chair), and I considered him a close friend. We talked 4 or 5 times a day by phone (sometimes as late as midnight), we met frequently for coffee, and he attended social gatherings at my home. I therefore said things to him in confidence, assuming that those things would remain between friends and not be published in the Bulletin. Following a weekend in which the SC met for many hours in executive session (and in which things were said which Farshid knows well I can not repeat), both Steve and I spoke with anger one night, late at night, in a parking lot. We didn't act on those words in any way -- in or outside of meetings -- and thus I believe his comments are simply designed to create bad feelings towards us, and thereby erode community support for the much-needed changes we are trying to bring to our schools.
  • Despite my disagreement with Farshid's choice to bring up these comments made late one night, I do really agree with his statement that "It is not fiscally or educationally prudent to impose curriculum changes that are not based on a professional analysis of all the available data." I very much share his hope that the new evaluation policy we've passed this year helps school administrators make decisions using all available data, including objective data and comparisons with other districts, instead of simply assuming that whatever our schools are now using (curricula, programs, etc.) is simply the best because we are in Amherst.


Anonymous said...

It would appear Farshid can't stay out of the limelight. He always had to have the last word in school committee meetings, and he still needs to get yet one more last word. I imagine he will continue to throw his two cents in for some time. He doesn't want the school committee to move on. That would mean they're doing just fine, thank you, with out him. akab

Anonymous said...

I assume Farshid did his level best and that he brought both value in his service and problems, such as when acting out of resentment or by assuming more authority than he was entitled to by virtue of his position.

How to move forward most constructively is the main thing and I think we're off to a good start.

Anonymous said...

Weird I get a 404 when I click on the link above:

Losing ground? As Amherst School enrollment drops, officials ask why -- and some parents step up to answer
By Nick Grabbe
Staff Writer
Published on August 13, 2010

Anonymous said...

"Losing ground? As Amherst School enrollment drops, officials ask why -- and some parents step up to answer"

The article tells me a different story than the title. It tells me there is no consensus regarding what the problems are, and indeed even if there are problems (take Mr Haynes defense of ARMS for example.) To this, I say build a consensus about what the problems are before moving to solutions, especially where administrators, such as a school principal, are concerned.

The story relies on valid but anecdotal evidence (interviews) in search of insight into what a soon to be released survey will say about why, 'increasingly', Amherst kids and parents are choosing schools outside the Amherst public school system.

This story most closely hues to a story about the pre-politicization of a trend: Why Amherst residents are increasingly displeased with the Amherst Public. What you see play out in the story is the fight over control of the narrative. The question is too widely defined to be productive until the results of the questionnaire are in and specifics can be debated.

Finally, should, and if so how should, increasing departures from Amherst Public Schools inform our debate over the school curriculum and related issues?

Anonymous said...

I don't see the question being one of whether I would prefer Option
A) Deference to Admin or
B) SB sets priorities & policy.

Instead, I see the question as this:

How can the SC be more effective building a consensus with administrators and teachers on the priorities, opportunities, problems and solutions.

Some ideas:
1. Make it a big part of how Administrators’ performance is reviewed as stated in their job descriptions.
2. Solicit their input on the issues that need to be addressed and their preferred solutions, and make an opportunity for discussion and feedback. Perhaps it's time to survey administrators and or teachers on the question of issues and priorities. Even better ask them write the first draft of the survey.
3. Communicate back to administrators and teachers the agenda for policy changes over the near term, request their support and answer their questions, Measure their performance in part on their effectiveness implementing the new policy

Sanderson argues the problems she outlines are driving the decision of an increasing number of Amherst public school students and parents to pursue their educations' elsewhere:

The issues observed in our district by outside experts are, not surprisingly, also observed by students and parents. In turn, a growing number of families are leaving our schools -- for private schools, choice schools in other districts, charter schools, and home schooling -- with enrollments for the coming school year below projections in both the middle and elementary schools.

I presume Sanderson has seen the numbers, and has found a significant and growing number of Amherst residents choosing school outside our public school system but the case is not made that they are doing so for the reasons presented. The evidence for this is not presented (other than anecdotal information in another article in the same paper.)

I will say this; I was taken out of ARHS in the mid 70s after grade 10 to attend Deerfield Academy. While some of my ARHS classmates also attended one of the most selective LACs, I would not have but for those two years of rigorous study.

Anonymous said...

The link to Catherine's blog entry above has an error (the final slash is missing); here's the correct link:

Anonymous said...

There may be another reason why some tied to the public schools are sending their kids to the privates.

Several fabulous kids from ARHS were accepted at top colleges and universities, which is great for them, their families, and Amherst. BUT, they've also been told that they have to take a sort of remedial chemistry class when they start college because these top flight places see that ARHS doesn't have AP Chemistry.

Those kids are finding out that ARHS has not prepared them to compete with their future classmates at top colleges. And, there's no good reason we don't have AP Chemistry.

We have wonderful kids in Amherst and some wonderful teachers, but we have some very weak curriculums.

The HS principal and other powers in town know that the science curriculum is weak and that there are plenty of other problems, so they send their kids to the privates.

Anonymous said...

Re: August 16, 2010 7:45 PM

Very true. I can verify this happened to my son when he started 9th grade at a private high school. Altho he could have started Calc a/b here, the private high school said his understanding of it was too shallow. All his friends who went to the high school here were able to continue on. He had to repeat it at the private high school. The private high school didn't have any vested interest in keeping him back.

Anonymous said...

Also, I'm sure my Mr. Churchill will say that my expectations of the math department are either too unrealistic or, what is the other saying that gets thrown around? Ahhh yes, this is just anecdotal information. Keep on dreaming Amherst.

Nina Koch said...

to anon 7:45 pm

Actually, our Honors Chemistry course is very rigorous and contains many of the same topics you see listed on the AP syllabus. It uses a university textbook. Check the curriculum map before you characterize it as "weak."

It's very common for students to come back and say that they were well-prepared for college chemistry. You can read one such comment here, from an alum who won a very prestigious national science scholarship:

Goldwater winner

It is true that many colleges ask students to take their introductory course rather than skip it. This may or may not be due to their high school background. I recently spoke with the parents of a student who had taken BC Calculus in high school, but the engineering program at his university wants all entering students to take their intro calc course. Remember that the AP test can only capture a subset of the important skills and concepts in a subject. If a college wants their students to approach calculus from a strongly theoretical point of view, with lots of proofs, then the AP curriculum is not sufficient for their needs.

I think you need to be very careful about making general statements about students' level of preparation for college. A few anecdotes you may have heard here and there don't give you the basis for such statements. I can match your anecdotes with other anecdotes, such as the link I provided above.

I'd like to see a survey of students maybe two or three years out of high school and ask them how prepared they felt.

Nina Koch said...

I also think it's important for people not to speculate and assume that they know why a family makes a particular choice for their child. I am glad that the system is doing the exit survey because I think it will show that there are a wide range of reasons for people's choices and I think we can learn something from it.

We can see some indication of the range of reasons in the Bulletin article, with the data from last year's phone survey:

"Mildred Martinez reached 261 parents and logged their responses. Of these, 107 withdrew because they had relocated. Of the remaining 154, 31 cited philosophical differences with the curriculum or teaching practices..."

31 out of 261 is not an overwhelming majority. Remember also that a philosophical difference could mean a lot of different things. It could mean that they want more AP courses. It could also mean that they want their child in a school with smaller classes and a greater emphasis on project-based learning. Maybe the student is going to the Putney School which has chosen not to offer an AP curriculum:

Putney statement on AP

Maybe the student is going to the Hartsbrook School, which has a fascinating 9-12 program:

Hartsbrook curriculum

Some kids could really thrive at a progressive place like that and I understand why a family might make that choice.

So you can't assume that you know why someone is leaving the school. And I don't think anybody should be making statements about particular families, unless that family has chosen to tell their story in the press.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I think that comment simply means that students who have taken an AP chemistry class (and received a 4 or 5 on the exam) AUTOMATICALLY place out of an intro chemistry class. I know that is true at Amherst College, and at many other places. Students who haven't taken AP Chemistry typically take a lower-level intro chemistry class, or, as in the case at Brown, must study for and take a placement exam (I have no idea how these kids do, nor how much time such studying takes). No matter how advanced our chemistry class is, kids who take AP chemistry have had 2 years of chemistry study, which I think clearly would provide a much stronger basis for the study of chemistry in college. I continue to be surprised that ARHS has chosen not to offer AP Chemistry for those students who find this class very intriguing (particularly since I believe all other MSAN schools offer a second year of high school chemistry).

Anonymous said...

Nina let's not play with the facts with too much. The full statement in the Gazette about parents pulling their kids out of Amherst schools is as follows:

"Of these, 107 withdrew because they had relocated. Of the remaining 154, 31 cited philosophical differences with the curriculum or teaching practices, such as lack of rigor, low expectations and lack of differentiation among students of varying abilities. Twenty-seven said they felt their children would benefit from a smaller school, which would provide more individual attention and a quieter learning environment.

Seventeen parents said they withdrew because they wanted their children to attend a specialized or private school. Eleven families reported that their children had been bullied or they had concerns over physical or emotional safety."

Anonymous said...

Why not just offer AP Chem at ARHS and see what happens?

Perhaps there is extra $$$ around for a p/t chem teacher given the "huge drop" in enrollments, which ought to translate into fewer classrooms...fewer teachers....though I see that APRS district is looking to hire more paras as of today...

Or send the eligible kids to AC. They do that with SC at NHS.

Getting really sick of this discussion.

Anonymous said...

I was looking at the Amherst College Chemistry webpage, and my understanding is that you will NOT automatically place out of chemistry at Amherst College by taking AP Chemistry and scoring well. On their website it says this:

"performance on the AP chemistry exam, or even having taken AP chemistry at all, does not by itself provide sufficient guidance"

There is a whole list of things you must do/have before you can place out of a chemistry class, and they even say the vast majority of students do not place out of the class.

The website is here

Anonymous said...

As to Nina's comments about students relating stories of the rigors of their ARHS education, I can't imagine a student coming back to visit his or her HS teachers and complaining that they weren't prepared by the ARHS curriculum. How does a college age kid begin a conversation like that? How does a college kid tell his old principal that he has to take remedial courses because ARHS won't offer APs?

That kids come back and visit with their old teachers and tell them how much they loved the ARHS experience is wonderful, but it isn't evidence of a quality education.

It's really black and white with ARHS and chemistry. The high schools we think we measure up to have physics first or biology in ninth grade and they have AP chemistry. We don't.

We have a highly unique, untested science curriculum. And, no one has yet graduated with the completely new curriculum, so pointing out one kid, who graduated a number of years ago, who won a science prize isn't evidence of much other than that kid's intelligence and hard work.

Moreover, we have the principal of the HS showing so little faith in his own product that he doesn't think it's good enough for his own kid.

Shouldn't that be a basic measure of any product? If it isn't good enough for the guy selling it, how can it be good enough for me?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:02 - I think you are misreading the info on the AC website -- that link describes whether students are placed into Chem 11 or Chem 15. It says the AP chem scores are ONE of several factors (the others are all math-related, with the exception of "strong preparation in HS chemistry" - which means a second year course), and specifically notes that a high score on the Chem SAT 2 is NOT sufficient. As one who regularly advises first-years on course selection at Amherst College, I can assure you that kids who have a 4 or 5 in AP Chemistry routinely place out of the intro class (unless, of course, their math scores are weak). It is clear that having AP Chemistry is advantageous for kids who want to study chemistry (or medicine) in college. Moreover, even if kids don't want to skip an intro level course (which some kids will opt not to do), these kids are better prepared because they've had two years of chemistry in HS, whereas all those who've graduated from ARHS can have at most 1. I just don't understand the resistance of our high school to adding this course, which is very standard at most of our comparison high schools (including Northampton High).

Anonymous said...

Most of the top tier colleges look at how many AP courses you have taken, and how you scored. Period. They may not let you opt out of the classes at their college, but how many you took is a HUGE indicator to them. The more the better. Like Catherine, I don't get the resistance to offering them. If you don't want your kid to take them, don't. But what are the rest of the kids who DO want to take them supposed to do? And in a town that prides itself on diversity, why is having a diverse educational curriculum soooo terrible? Oh yeah, it's not politically correct.

Nina Koch said...

Here is the rationale for the science department's decision:

AP Chemistry decision

As with so many decisions, it involves a lot of factors.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I find this information from the HS science department REALLY depressing. Apparently other schools across the country have decided to teach AP Chemistry; apparently colleges and universities across the country have decided to accept AP Chemistry credits. Yet the ARHS teachers decide that this course isn't a good one to teach?

In addition, this piece really points out the weakness of our new 9th grade science course -- it notes that a weakness of OFFERING AP Chemistry is that students would have to choose between this class and physics, but that is ONLY true because we delay the onset of the core sciences to 10th grade. Most other schools have 9th graders take biology or physics, so kids can take biology/chemistry/physics (in some order) PRIOR to 12th grade, and can then choose to take any AP science class they want. Yet because we require an unprecedented 9th grade science class in ecology, we set up another barrier to offering AP Chemistry.

Finally, I've attended virtually all SC meetings for 3 years. At no time have the HS science teachers or the principal asked for funds to add an AP Chemistry class. I'd totally support this request, as I'm sure would many of my colleagues on the SC. So, if the issue is really money, I hope Mark Jackson and the head of the HS science department will come to the SC and the superintendent and make their case this fall so that we can indeed add this course.

Anonymous said...


I find your response to the link Nina provided depressing. I feel like you stopped reading at the first paragraph. If you read the whole analysis of the Science Dept you will find that because the College Board addressed some of the concerns of the science department they now do support offering AP Chem.

The rest of the analysis looks at what it till take to get AP Chem up and running. For many reasons it will be difficult to get it up and running, not just for monetary reasons.

But lets assume for the sake of argument that if we have as much money as it takes to get AP Chem going, I want to know if you are also going to support buying new Biology texts at the same time. It seems equally critical that our students have what it takes to be successful learners in Biology.

And, will you allow doubling up in all curricula areas if its allowed in Science?

There are many issues to look at here. It's not as simple as lets throw money at it.

As will all things in life, its not a strictly black and white answer.

So, I have these two questions for you Catherine:

1. Do you also support buying new Biology texts along with getting AP Chem up and running?

2. Do you support letting students double up in other curricula areas or just science?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 9:41 - I have supported doubling up on all curriculum areas in the HS already -- in fact, I talked about this at several meetings (and it was one of the advantages of eliminating the 2 required study halls). I support having updated textbooks as needed for all areas -- not just biology!

I would note, however, that the very report sited in the HS teachers' post states (if you read the whole report) that kids should have chemistry BEFORE they have biology (which is what occurs only for the highest achieving kids in ARHS), and I would imagine that biology books are written somewhat differently for kids with versus without a chemistry background. Thus, it isn't clear to me that one biology book would even be appropriate, since kids will vary in their preparation for biology (due to the tracking done in science in our HS). This is yet another way in which our HS differs from virtually all other high schools, in which kids come into biology with the same preparation.

Abbie said...

Hi Catherine and other interested parties:

I am a biology professor and in my professional opinion, it seems like having chemistry before an introductory high school biology course wouldn't be needed. I could foresee that it might for an AP biology course. If I understand correctly the ARHS AP biology course (someone *please* correct me if I am wrong) combines intro bio and AP bio into one course. If this is correct, then to my knowledge this is unusual and it mihgt mean that chem is needed as a prerequisite for ARHS AP Bio (which includes intro bio).

UMass does not require college intro chem (usually taken Soph year 2 semesters) BEFORE the intro bio course (taken as Freshman 2 semesters).

I think it would be great if the HS science department were to consider a new text book to ask local higher Ed biology professors as (unpaid) consultants for their opinions. I am sure many would contribute happily to such an important decision.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Abbie - two quick things.

First, the AP biology course at ARHS does integrate intro biology (and requires chemistry). In most other schools, kids have a full year of biology BEFORE AP biology (which might be why this course seems to require more class time than it does in other districts).

Second, the 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) cited on the ARHS website recommends all students have a year of chemistry BEFORE biology -- which is one of the reasons why some districts (e.g., Bemet, Deerfield, Springfield, Brookline, Newton, etc.) have moved to a physics first curriculum. Then kids have 9th grade physics, 10th grade chemistry, 11th grade biology, and then a 12th grade AP (bio, chem, physics, AP environmental science) or an elective. This seems to be a real change in how biology is taught in HS in many places -- with more focus on chemistry as background (I have no idea if this is good or not).

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. Why is anyone surprised by the story that a few students are leaving our schools? Our school committee, or at least the loud mouth Amherst group, has made it a life mission to publicly proclaim how weak our schools are, despite our stellar records in all areas of measurement.

Sure, they say they are only trying to improve the schools, but frankly I think some of the people leaving are trying to distance themselves, and their kids, from this hyper crtical group.

2. To the voices telling how their kids had to repeat a grade when they got to private school. I'm a teacher in her third decade of the profession, who has taught in three hs. Every single kid I've known who has left school and gone to a private hs has had to repeat the grade they just finished. This is the private school mode of operation.

It has little to do with academic preparation and much to do with getting another year's tuition from that family.

Anonymous said...

To: August 19, 2010 8:19 AM

I think after 3 decades teaching you just proved the fact that you need to retire. You have NO idea what you're talking about.

Joel said...

To Anon 8:19

Two things:

First off, I think you're either not remembering correctly or just making up the fact that kids have to repeat grades when they move to private school. Let's just be logical about this. How many parents who are stretching and going into debt for private school can afford an extra year of tuition?

It's hard to take you seriously when you claim that "Every single kid I've known who has left school and gone to a private hs has had to repeat the grade they just finished. This is the private school mode of operation." Really?

The story conveyed above is of the need to repeat a particular class because ARHS's version of a math or science class was not advanced enough for the private school.

The stories reproduced here and elsewhere about recent ARHS grads having to take remedial chemistry at Ivy League institutions is proof of that.

As to leaving because of the "loud mouth Amherst group," I beg to differ. That group is the only one willing to examine critically what's good, okay, and bad about our schools and work to make them better. One of the reasons I pulled my kids is that I don't think the superintendent or MS or HS principals can even hear criticism of our schools or work to make our schools places for "every student, every day."

If the ideas and work of Catherine, Steve, Rob, and Irv were being taken seriously by our school system -- which is supposed to be how it works, the elected SC is supposed to have more power than it in fact does -- I would not have pulled my kids.

Anon 8:19 hits the nail on the head said...

Yes, I am paying $20K in private school tutition just to "distance myself" from C.Sanderson and her ilk. Now that I think of it, maybe we should just have moved to get even more distance since there is still a chance of contamination.....

Anonymous said...

"If the ideas and work of Catherine, Steve, Rob, and Irv were being taken seriously by our school system -- which is supposed to be how it works, the elected SC is supposed to have more power than it in fact does -- I would not have pulled my kids."


(and to the slithery ones, back to your holes, your "opinions" are not wanted here anymore)

Michael Jacques said...

To Anon 8:19,

I know at least 4 families that are moving to private schools. All of them have voted for the current SC and fully support them.

From my understanding while the SC has made some very significant changes like keeping study halls to a minimum, adding Spanish to the ES, adding more early intervention, saving the district $1,000,000 every year moving forward, they have not broken through the wall that protects core curriculum. It is these changes that have recently been made (9th grade environmental) or not made to our core curriculum (ES math, AP Chemistry) that concerns many of us.

What I fail to understand is the complaint that our school committee thinks the schools are bad. I believe the SC feels our schools are good and in many areas excellent. What you perceive as hyper critical many of us feel is a never ending cycle of pointing out issues in the district that never get addressed. It may feel hyper critical to you because the same questions keep getting asked over and over again without resolution.

These are the best 5 people Amherst could ever hope for, to address the issues.

How many years, how many meetings, how many studies have to be presented before we modify ES math to include more rote memorization, add AP chemistry, allow double dipping in science, vertical and horizontal alignment in various subject areas.

These things being asked for are not that outrageous. They certainly help all students regardless of race or socio-economic status. Why is there some much push back to making such small changes that quite frankly fall in line with some of the top schools in the country?

We pay so much for each student to get an education in Amherst. When does Amherst become one of the schools most studied to determine the best way to educate a child?

Abbie said...

I share Michael's sentiments entirely and couldn't have said it better.

Just because Catherine and some other folks (including myself) haven't slinked away with their concerns, as I am sure has happened ad nauseam in the past, that doesn't define them as hyper critical or trashing the schools.

I wish more folks would actually watch or attend SC meetings, instead of just relying on blogs, newspapers, and water-cooler talk. For the VAST majority of the time, SC meetings are respectful, thoughtful, and not accusatory. I don't always agree with every SC member's idea but I do appreciate that they are transparent, vocal, and invested.

Just because Amherst schools do some things differently from other schools in the country does NOT mean it is better. Some folks seem to have the core belief that different = better. If it's different, the onus is to PROVE that it is an improvement (eg. trimesters, extensions, AP biology (combining AP and intro bio), 9th grade ecology (no option for biology or physics)). I also believe that the community who supports our schools via their taxes and those that they voted for (SC members: the public's ONLY way to influence the public schools) ought to have some say.

Anonymous said...

Abbie said: "Just because Amherst schools do some things differently from other schools in the country does NOT mean it is better."

It also doesn't mean that it's worse than what other schools in the country are doing.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

First, I really appreciate Mike and Abbie's comments -- thanks to you both.

Second, I want to be very clear here -- I've never said our choices are WORSE (e.g., trimester, no AP Chem, ecology required, extensions, Investigations, IMP, etc.). I've said they are DIFFERENT (which they objectively are -- they are definitely different from the choices being made by most other districts), and I've therefore said we need to EVALUATE the consequences of these choices. That's it. But simply asking for an evaluation of these things is seen as teacher-bashing, tearing down our schools, creating bad morale, micro-managing, etc.

I've asked for 4 years now for many of these things to be evaluated -- I've asked PRIOR to even running for SC for many of these math programs in our schools to be evaluated (in part because I heard concerns not just from parents but from teachers).

Guess how many of those things have been evaluated thus far? None.

We adopted the trimester system 10 years ago (or more) and it was never evaluated in terms of student achievement outcomes.

We adopted extensions 5 years ago and it was never evaluated in terms of student achievement outcomes.

We adopted Investigations over 20 years ago and it has never been evaluated in our district, though it has been evaluated in other districts (and that evaluation revealed it was NOT good).

We adopted IMP 5 years ago and we have never evaluated it.

We adopted ecology as a requirement two years ago and we have never evaluated it.

So, I guess I'm wondering why those who support these new and innovative programs aren't calling joining me, and Abbie, and Mike, and others, and insisting on objective evaluations? Because in all honesty, if we had some objective evidence showing our programs ARE better, I would feel much better about how very different our schools are from most other schools -- as would many other parents. And having such data is the ONLY way of demonstrating whether our choices are BETTER, WORSE, or the SAME as the choices made by most other districts.

Michael Jacques said...

Anom 3:19,

You are absolutely correct it does not mean our schools are worse. In fact I will go so far as to say that in the areas of ES Art, Music, PE, and racial and social equality / awareness are schools are probably in the top 5% if not 1% in the country. The schools and teachers excel in these areas and I am grateful.

I would say the rest of the curriculum in the ES is at least good if not better.

Here's the but. But, those great things are not easy paths to financially rewarding / stable employment. We all hold great artists in high regard but that does not always feed the artist. My daughter is particularly good in art. Against my practical side I will try and help that flourish but I will not forget that she should have a back up plan. That plan includes being good at math, science, and writing.

The investigations curriculum taught in the ES is lacking in basic skills. I am not the first to say it. I am one of many over many years. The best way to shut me up is to drag the debate out until my kids move on. Whether that is intentional or not that is how it feels when you bring up concerns.

Your thoughts?

Joel said...

To Anon 3:19 on whether or not having so many policies and programs in our schools that are truly outliers compared to just about every other district in America, I do think the onus is on Amherst to prove, really prove, that what we're doing is somehow better than what the vast, vast majority of other districts is doing.

Remember, it isn't just that we have a highly unique 9th grade science curriculum (we may be truly alone in this as a requirement) or that we are one of the very few districts in our region with trimesters, or that our math program is openly derided by university math professors and science and engineering faculty (although many education profs who don't deal with the end product of IMP the way math, science and engineering profs do, like it), and on and on. It isn't just this or that program. It's the soup or stew of Amherst's collection of unique and odd programs that worries so many parents.

Supporters of the status quo inevitably point to a district here or there that does something similar to what we do, but can anyone find a place that has so many unique programs?

Moreover, this is about educating kids. We cannot simultaneously talk about having to support the schools in an unquestioning way because education is so vital and at the same time experiment on our kids.

I don't want my dentist telling me that he's the only one or one of a tiny group of people using some sort of unique drill. I don't want my physician telling me that she has a new, untested way to protect me against the flu. No one else does it, but it's neat. I don't want my auto mechanic or vet fixing my car or treating my dog with methods and tools that are so controversial and unique that the vast majority of people don't use them.

I think it's pretty clear that the obligation to prove that these programs and policies are as good as those used elsewhere is with our superintendent and principals. And yet, they refuse to study any of it.

Anonymous said...

Joel said " or that our math program is openly derided by university math professors and science and engineering faculty"

Can you offer any cites to support this sweeping statement?

ken said...

Catherine, with all due respect, you have not simply asked for the ES math program to be evaluated. You keep saying it is "weak"--before any evaluation has been done. And making that repeated claim in spite of the fact that: 1) I once posted a lot of MCAS data that showed that our students show way above the state average MCAS growth from grades 3-6 across all subgroups compared to the state, and to the demographically most similar districts to ours; 2) the Bulletin article from 2 weeks ago (which you interestingly neglected to post of your blog) showed how our preliminary aggregate 2009-10 MCAS math scores last year are way above the state average, and far above Northampton, the district you so love to compare us to; and 3) though you keep citing research which "proves" that Investigations is not good, NO research on Investigations EITHER PRO OR CON has been certified by the What Works Clearinghouse, a point which I believe I made in multiple postings. BTW--Investigations has been the official math program in Amherst I believe under 10 years, not 20 (but who's counting).

To Mr. Jacques and others who seem to hate Investigations: I train teachers all over the state, probably 1,500 over the past 3 years in 35+ districts in MA and NH. My estimate is that Investigations is used in about 75% of the districts I've trained in (I am not a math trainer, nor do I have any stake in investigations at all). I guess we should be doing more things other districts do, that is, until we should not be doing things other districts do. And a select subset of Amherst parents will surely be telling us which is which and when and how on that score.

Finally, in this day and age, MCAS is the arbiter of what is working and what isn't in districts, for good or for ill. I know very little about science, but I will only say that as of our 2009-10 MCAS scores on the 10th grade Science and Technology test, Amherst students in EVERY subgroup score SUBSTANTIALLY higher than the state average in the aggregate and in each subgroup. Anyone can go on the DESE website and see for themselves. Other posters have claimed that the SPED program in the regional schools is really bad, but again, MCAS shows that our SPED subgroup in 7, 8 and 10th grades FAR outperforms this subgroup statewide, on ALL the tests. How about a little data to back up all the claims that come pouring onto this blog?

In the interests of disclosure--I used to be a teacher in Amherst, but I no longer am. I have no special stake whatsoever in the schools, my children have graduated, I don't own stock in Investigations, and, if you can believe it, I am neither a mouthpiece for school administration nor do I believe that Amherst schools are above reproach.

ken said...

Catherine, with all due respect, you have not simply asked for the ES math program to be evaluated. You have stated many times that it is "weak"--before any evaluation has been done. And you've made that repeated claim in spite of the fact that: 1) I once posted a lot of MCAS data that showed that our students show way above the state average MCAS growth from grades 3-6 across all subgroups compared to the state, and to the demographically most similar districts to ours; 2) the Bulletin article from 2 weeks ago (which you interestingly neglected to post of your blog) showed how our preliminary aggregate 2009-10 MCAS math scores last year are way above the state average, and far above Northampton, the district you so love to compare us to; and 3) though you keep citing research which "proves" that Investigations is not good, NO research on Investigations EITHER PRO OR CON has been certified by the What Works Clearinghouse, a point which I believe I made in multiple postings this spring. BTW--Investigations has been the official math program in Amherst I believe under 10 years, not 20 (but who's counting).

To Mr. Jacques and others who seem to hate Investigations: I train teachers all over the state, probably 1,500 over the past 3 years in 35+ districts in MA and NH. My estimate is that Investigations is used in about 75%of the districts I've trained in (I am not a math trainer, nor do I own stock in the company that publishes Investigations materials). So we should definitely be doing more things that other districts do, that is, until we should not be doing things other districts do. And a select subset of empowered Amherst parents will surely be telling us which is which and when and how on that score.

Finally, in this day and age, MCAS is the arbiter of what is working and what isn't in MA districts, for good or for ill. I know very little about science, but I will only say that on the 2009-10 10th grade Science and Technology MCAS, Amherst students in EVERY subgroup score SUBSTANTIALLY higher than the state average in the aggregate and in each subgroup. Anyone can go on the DESE website and see for themselves. Other posters have claimed that the SPED program in the regional schools is really bad, but MCAS results show that our SPED subgroup in 7, 8 and 10th grades FAR outperforms this subgroup statewide, on ALL the tests. How about a little data to back up all the claims that come pouring onto this blog?

In the interests of disclosure--I used to be a teacher in Amherst, but I no longer am. I have no special stake whatsoever in the schools, and, if you can believe it, I am neither a mouthpiece for school administration nor do I believe that Amherst schools are above reproach.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 8/19, 5:30 pm regarding our chosen math curriculum. Here is a not so nice review of it by a University of California Berkeley professor, Dr. Wu. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

Is that really all you can come up with? One Berkely professor saying he doesn't like IMP? One person warrants a sweeping statement such as Joel's about how awful IMP is?????

One person in Berkely is going to influence our curriculum selection in Amherst????

Anonymous said...

Saw the article on folks leaving ARPS. Why hasn't Mark Jackson explained why his daughter is at Bement?

Here's a portion of an email sent out to ARHS families. Note that one of the most vocal supporters of the override has now pulled his remaining child. The younger one is at Bement, with Mark Jackson's kid.

Isn't it time these high profile Amherst leaders explain why the schools are good enough for your kids and mine, but not theirs?

Here' the email:

"The ARHS Parent Guardian Organization would like to publicly thank Adrienne Levine, the former Co-Chair of the Parent Center*, and Baer Tierkel, the former Editor of the ARHS Parent News, for their years of service to our school community. We wish them all the best as their families join new schools."

Joel said...

I am not a expert on the so-called Math Wars, but I do know this. The dividing line is between K-12 math teachers, many of whom support "reform math" and university math, science, and engineering professors, many of whom protest that programs like IMP under-prepare kids for college level math. The article by the Berkeley prof. cited above is a famous one, but if you simply google "math professors critique IMP" or "science professors" or "engineering professors" you'll get hundreds of hits.

It's hard to find university-level math, science, and engineering professors who like IMP. IMP's supporters in higher ed tend to be education professors.

Now before the inevitable critique of these critiques as "elitist" is leveled. . .wait, go ahead. They are elitist in the sense that we want kids to perform on an elite level -- all kids, not just the kids of professors who teach their kids the old fashioned way of doing math and who therefore end up ahead of the kids using reform math.

University faculty see the end product of reform math and many if not most of them are unhappy with those results. It really doesn't matter what HS teachers think about this if they don't listen to what folks at the next level think.

It's sort of like an auto manufacturer refusing to look at data on repair histories. If you make something, you should want to know what the consumer of that product thinks of it. In terms of math, the consumers are the people evaluating those math skills at the next level -- college.

I'm a historian and one of my fields is history of technology. What's particularly confusing about some of the claims of reform math folks is that we had some sort of problem that needed to be fixed. The last 100 years have seen mind boggling advances in science and engineering and most of those advances have their roots in the work of first and second generation college educated folks who had been trained using very traditional math.

The GI Bill led to a mass influx of first generation college students, many of whom played fundamental roles in the space program, the rise of Silicon Valley, the transformation of science through research in genetics, etc. The fantastic growth of our universities in the 1960s also rested on the entry of first and second generation college kids and they learned so-called traditional math. Those generations' contributions to science and technology cannot be overstated. How exactly did traditional mathematics hold them back?

Anonymous said...

It appears to me that much of the debate pertaining to science at the high school centers around the appropriateness of offering the ecology/ environmental science program in 9th grade. I happened to be one of the parents who questioned this offering before my son entered ARHS, and who strongly preferred bio, physics, or just about anything else for 9th grade. I myself majored in science (physics)in college, so I know something about this. Now on the other side of the course and bio, I have to admit I was completely wrong. The course was rigorous in the best way and (to be honest) much more rigorous than bio in the end. It introduced an array of scientific concepts, and provided an excellent grounding in mathematically-based scientific inquiry and research. I would absolutely recommend this course for 9th graders who are serious about science (and those who don't know they might be).

Anonymous said...

My guess is that the conversation here is going to continue to be livelier here than on the new "Celebrate Our Schools" website, and the last two posts demonstrate that.

Thank you for both.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 9:03 AM

Doesn't the "talk one way, send one's kid another" pattern of so many of Amherst's "elites" cause you to think that the political struggle is primarily about two things:

1) the resale value of Amherst's residential real estate;

2) the unfettered autonomy of Amherst's public school teachers (which appears to be the only condition in which we can be assured that they will be truly happy);

and that's it?

Anonymous said...

Which website is the "Celebrate our Schools" website?

Anonymous said...


It's clear that you are not a fan of IMP. No problem. Your children, if they came back to the Amherst public schools for high school, could take the more traditional math sequence.

But others do want their child to have the opportunity to take IMP math. Why not continue to offer both IMP and the more traditional math? Do you espouse taking IMP away as an option?

My belief is that we should give parents and students more options, not less. Hence I support offering both IMP and traditional math and I also support allowing 9th graders to take either the current ecology course or Biology.

I have no experience with either of the math approaches or with the current 9th grade science so I cannot comment on their efficacy. But I am a firm believe in offering as much choice as possible in our tight budgetary times.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:47 - I basically agree with what you said -- but want to add two things.

First, I believe kids should have options, such as the option to do 9th grade biology. But the HS (principal and science teachers) have refused to make 9th grade biology an option. This isn't teacher-bashing ... it is just a fact. I would feel a lot better about our highly unique 9th grade course if it were an option and not required.

Second, I believe, and I actually wrote a Bulletin column about this, that when we give kids options, we should be able to tell them the likely implications of their choices. So, if choosing IMP means that kids won't be able to take calculus, or won't be able to major in math or science in college, we should be honest with them about this BEFORE they make the choice. Maybe kids who take IMP do better on the math SATs, or better in AP Calculus, than kids who take traditional math. But I haven't seen any evidence that that is true, and I haven't seen any desire by the HS principal or teachers to answer the very basic question - what are the ramifications of IMP math, and are they different for different kids? Again, given the questions about IMP that are being raised nationally, I think we owe it to our kids to actually conduct an evaluation of kids in our schools so we can answer this very basic question, right?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Two more things:

Anonymous 9:46 - I'm glad your child had a good experience with the new 9th grade class. However, I think the key thing is not to rely on anecdotes, but to rely on data -- and I'd like to know how kids do in later science classes as a function of whether they had ecology or biology first. But in addition, I have real concerns about the costs of this course on students' opportunities. One of the big reasons not to offer AP Chemistry is that students would then have to choose between this class and ANY class in physics -- and this is only an issue because we don't allow students to take biology in 9th grade. That seems like a really negative consequence of this unique requirement.

Anonymous 10:42 - I believe this reference is to the new "" site.

Joel said...

I think parents should have plenty of options in terms of math and other subjects. They should know exactly how various curriculum maps work and how taking something in one grade affects the offerings available later in that kid's school career.

It would be wonderful to know through real data collection how some of our HS offerings affect our grads in college. We know that some top schools don't think our science prep is enough. It would be nice to know how many ARHS grads test out of first year writing courses, perhaps showing a strength, how well they do in foreign language placement exams, and where they are in terms of math and science. That would require more than anecdotes; it requires careful study.

Of course, such study takes time and costs money, but if you have a highly unique way of doing things, you're obligated to spend the money and take the time to make sure that what you're doing is as good or better than what the vast majority of places you compare yourself to is doing.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts:

1. I was at one of the meetings between parents and Dr. Chen (K-12 math consultant) and Beth Graham (new K-12 curriculum director). Our group was small and the parents spoke about their concerns and their childrens' experiences which, of course, varied. Dr. Chen and Ms. Graham said very little and took notes. Our meeting turned into an interesting discussion among parents and almost every parent wanted to see Amherst's math program's evaluated. Why program and curriculum evaluation is controversial in Amherst is a mystery to me.

2. The fact that Investigations has never been shown to meet the standards of What Works deeply concerns me. It should bother every one.

3. Many elmentary school teachers have noticed that Investigations seems to relegate teaching kids how to solve equations and memorize math facts to the back row of the classroom. Teachers supplement to patch up this obvious defect. The problem is that all teachers aren't using the same and proven patches. Are there better programs out there -- and can people just asking this question just ask it without being attacked? I suggested that Montessori math be looked at since it's the best math curriculum that my kids have experienced.

4. I don't think Principal Mark Jackson's child goes to Bement, unless it is under an assumed name.

5. Finally, please let's hold all parts of Amherst schools to a higher standard than better than the state average. I want more for my kids than this and I think most Amherst residents do too.

I appreciate the passion and engagement of the posters to this blog, as nerve-wracking as it often is.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

If the reference is to the new CSE website then I wish people would call it what it is and not be so sarcastic about a brand new blog devoted to the education of our children. I hate the mentality of lets bash something before anyone knows a thing about it.

Perhaps, in the same vein, we should call this blog the "Celebrate Catherine Sanderson" website. Doesn't feel good does it???? Then lets try to stick to facts about our schools and not resort to pathetic bashing.

I think many of the recent posts in this threa have been interesting and thought provoking. I also visited the new CSE website and thought that some of those posts were also interesting and thought provoking. I wish the bashing and sarcasm would stop. Isn't it obvious that all parents in this town want the best education for their kids?

Anonymous said...

Joel said "We know that some top schools don't think our science prep is enough.

We do???? Again, where is your data to back up this statement? You and Catherine and Steve, etc are always talking about data driven analysis of our schools (which is not a bad thing) and then you and Catherine constantly make sweeping statements like the above with no data to back it up.

Please, give us some data to back up this statement.

Anonymous said...

Multiple kids who were admitted to Ivy League and other top private schools have to take a version of remedial chemistry at those elite schools next year because ARHS doesn't offer AP Chemistry. That's a fact.

Anonymous said...


The child's mother tells people she goes to Bement. The child's father has ducked the question repeatedly.

Maybe Mark should just tell the truth publicly to settle this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Two quick things:

Anonymous 11:36 - so, I'm actually not Joel, I'm Catherine, and I'd be very interested to hear a few specific examples of your statement that I'm always making sweeping statements with no data. Thanks.

Anonymous 11:33 - it is hard to imagine this is the "celebrate Catherine Sanderson" blog, given the amount of criticism I receive on it! However, I think the issue is that there are several statements on the new blog that are indeed bashing ... such as quotes taken out of context (by me and by Steve), a statement that our School Committee is working against our teachers, a quote that the only parents who complained about our math program go to Fort River, etc. That blog also only allows posts with names, and thus actually fosters less of an open dialogue than does mine -- because people, like you, can post anonymously and thereby join the discussion!

Joel said...

The older of my two kids is going into MS at Williston, so I'm not qualified to talk about the science program at ARHS.

But, I have been told by multiple people that the absence of AP Chemistry is a problem for our kids. Obviously, many ARHS kids are being admitted to good colleges and the HS, their families, and most of all those kids should be proud of those achievements. But, it's a shame that the ARHS science curriculum is out of step with those at the schools with which we like to think we compare well.

Do kids from Brookline and Newton admitted to the Ivies and other top places have to take the extra or remedial chemistry class in college? I know that the kids from my HS in suburban Philly don't, but ours do.

We have a unique curriculum and maybe the town likes it that way. The issue for me is that there's so little analysis of the impact of that uniqueness.

Nina Koch said...

Mark Jackson's child does not go to Bement and it is really none of anybody's business where the child goes to school and what the reasons are.

If a family chooses to tell their story in the newspaper, fine, discuss it. Otherwise, I don't think anybody should be saying anything about particular, identifiable children.

They are children. They shouldn't be volleyed about in a political discussion. Let them be.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I think this is a tricky question ... because I do agree that all parents have to do what is right for their own children, yet I also think people wonder why some people loudly promote the public schools (e.g., principals, university/college presidents, SC members, override supporters), but then opt out of the public schools for their own children. Do you feel it is OK when School Committee members make policies for our schools, yet choose to send their own children to private or charter schools?

Nina Koch said...

My point is that identifiable children should not be topics of discussion.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, but how about my question: do you think it is OK when School Committee members make policies and decisions about curriculum and programs and budgets in a school, yet send their own children elsewhere?

Nina Koch said...

I'm not going to judge what families decide to do, nor would I make that a criterion for whether or not someone is a good School Committee member. What matters is whether or not someone cares about children and education. It doesn't matter what their own personal situation is.

Anonymous said...

I think it speaks VOLUMES when an administrator, teacher, or override supporter says one thing about the public schools, yet sends their child to a private school. This is true in California, where over 50% of the public school teachers send their children to private schools. What does that say?

Anonymous said...

I am a little baffled by the focus on (1) AP Chemistry, and (2) preparation for college mathematics. The lack of AP Chem primarily affects two groups of students: First, those interested in pursuing the sciences in college. My understanding is that AP test scores do not generally count toward credits for science majors, only for credits for general education (breadth) requirements. Certainly, that appears to be the case at UMass.

Second, those students seeking to satisfy part of their college Gen Ed credits with their AP score. For this non-science major group, the AP Physics and/or AP Bio scores will do the trick that AP Chem would do.

One question raised for me in the various anecdotes about students allegedly taking "remedial" Chemistry is what their AP scores were -- merely taking a class designated as AP in high school is not generally recognized by colleges as satisfying any requirements. The student has to get a 4 or 5 on the actual test. As a new student advisor at UMass for several years, I can attest that only a minority of students who take AP courses in HS go on to both take the relevant test and score high enough to obtain academic credit.

The second thing I'm confused about is the focus on prep for college math. The majority of HS grads will never need calculus in college or in life. Those who do not go to college and those who do but major in something other than the sciences or math will be quite successful with more basic math skills. Statistics is a far more relevant course for this group of students than any other. The problem-solving curriculum that I understand IMP to is in fact much better suited to this group.

These discussions seem to focus only on a subset of students whose parents are determined that they go to elite four year colleges, majoring in math or sciences. But that's not who the majority of students in Amherst are, and I would hope that the curricula in a public school system would be designed to serve the greatest numbers of the public. Parents who want different challenges for their particular students -- say an easier ride to an elite college -- are free to take their kids to private school. The fact that some parents exercise this choice does not mean that our public schools are deficient in some way. It simply means that a public school, by its very nature, must serve (with limited resources) a much broader constituency.

Abbie said...

I am glad to hear of anon@9:46 good experience of the 9th grade ecology class but not so happy to hear the biology class didn't measure up so well.

I have some questions about the HS biology courses. From the website, I saw that two courses, each 3 trimesters, are offered (regular) biology and advanced biology, reading the course descriptions I take that a student has to decide without having had biology yet between (regular) biology and advanced biology. Here are my questions:

1) What happens to kids who take (regular) biology, love it, and want more? In most HS, these kids would have the option to take a semester of AP Biology.

2) What happens to kids who take AP Biology who find its not their cup of tea? They drop back to (regular) biology?

3) It seems like the ARHS biology approach takes more resources. Two entire courses have to be taught. In other HSs, regular biology is offered consisting of 2 semesters and then a SINGLE semester of AP biology is offered. In teaching hours, it seems like a switch to the 'typical' bio sequence would free up the resources needed to offer AP chem. Of course the translation gets complicated by the trimester system we use...So I don't, for a moment, believe that not offering AP chem is because we don't have the resources- its all about the choices made with our resources.

4) It seems like in Massachusetts, arguable the 2nd biggest center (after California) of Life Sciences (biotech, pharm), we would consider providing our students a top notch education in this area. Lots of high paying jobs for those who have that education and interest. And that interest is often piqued in HS, given a high quality exposure.

But let me repeat- I am really really glad the 9th grade ecology course is super!

Michael Jacques said...

Hey what a great discussion. So I will throw in my two cents. I don't have a problem with the district using IMP for students who don't want to follow a traditional track. I think the option is great but if there are future ramifications or limitations it would be good for both parents and students to know them up front. This way more students might get excited about math realizing there "may" be some extra work needed in the future if they choose a very technical field.

As for whole science curriculum issue I really don't have a problem with 9th grade environmental. From what has been posted on the school web site the top students are doing some great work. Here's that nasty but again, But if we are going to go down this path we need to allow double dipping in science no later than 10th grade (9th preferred) and we should have AP Bio, Chem, Physics, and Environmental. Also motivated students should have the ability to take every one of these AP courses. What a great opportunity for financially strapped families. This would really make our school stand out.

As for leaders in our schools sending their kids to private school, it is certainly the right for those leaders not to tell the public about the reasons for this decision. But, lets face facts, if they don't, other parents will want to know why a principle is not using their own product. It certainly is a difficult place to be, but then leadership in a public arena is rarely ever simple.

Now if a SC member pulled their children out of school permanently it would be gracious of them to resign. If they were pulling them out for, lets say MS only, and were working to change those things in the MS they had issue with I would find that acceptable.

Just my thoughts

Abbie said...

in reply to anon@1:32:

you seem to be fine with idea of AP Environmental Sciences... What's with the difference with AP Chem? Personally, I'm not so excited about the AP test part, but I understand why some are. What I think is important is to get students exposed to some of the cooler science stuff that comes after learning the basics. This is what can turn a person into a future scientist, who might cure cancer, find ways to combat global warming, feed the hungry. We desperately need those and I don't think they should come only from private schools, from families that can afford that luxury.

Also looking on the ARHS site, we have Environment and Ecology (9th grade) required and then additionally Environment and AP Environment. Superficially, it seems like maybe 'Environmental Science' might no longer be needed with the new 9th grade course. Again, it goes to the question of priorities and resources.

I take issue with this idea that somehow folks who want a really good science program are somehow selfishly promoting only kids destined for elite colleges (implied that these are supposedly their own). And this selfishly takes away resources from the majority of kids' needs.

A parent who attended the math consultant meeting told the group that "If we need to sacrifice the achievement of the top kids so that those at the bottom can be brought up, so be it." BTW, this person is in the group who started the new blog on Amherst Schools.

I find this sentiment disturbing and at best naive. Think about this idea being put into practice in ALL public schools, because we couldn't keep such a progressive idea just applied to Amherst (that would be elitist). I invite folks to think about what this would mean if it were actually to be put into effect.

Its pretty scary...with all kinds of implications.

ken said...

Teacher quality is the number one factor affecting student outcomes, not programs. A recent study of the LA school district has just reconfirmed this. If a teacher thinks Investigations relegates the need to develop number fluency to a back row or negates the need entirely, they neither understand the program well nor the needs of some students--some students will need more practice than others. This is an issue of teacher education and teacher practice, not whether program A or B is better. There are many math programs emphasizing number crunching which yield awful results for certain populations, just as Investigations can also if those elements of the math curriculum are left out, or if teachers have the same expectations of math learning for all students within one way of going about things. Getting caught up in programs misses the point that students matter most. To be a successful math student in this day and age, it's important to have number fluency as well as conceptual fluency. You can get those in ANY math curriculum with the right teacher, one who understands math, and more importantly his/her students.

But if we have to get sidetracked into talking about programs: The What Works Clearinghouse has only passed on one math program re research validity. Most districts in the country to do not use it (yet). The fact that research on Investigations has not been validated by the WWC does NOT prove that it is a poor math program, only that the research conducted on it so far--either pro or con--has failed to meet certain criteria.

Finally, I will just add that it's important to view MCAS results with more attention than we are used to doing in this town, both to show what is not working as well as what is. This the Dept. of Education's expectation at both the state and federal levels, that a state's testing is the lens through which districts take appropriate action regarding the progress of all students, and specific demographic groups. For PUBLIC schools, MA has probably the most rigorous state test, and MA students do near or at the top of all US students at all grades. Therefore, it is nothing to sneeze at or dismiss when MCAS results show strength in a district, just as districts ignore poor MCAS results at their peril.

Anonymous said...

What a clarifying comment from Anon 1:32.

So, what about the poor kids who are smart enough to get into Harvard? They can't have the APs or outside tutoring, etc. I guess they should just suck eggs because their parents can't afford to send them to Deerfield. No need for ARHS to help poor kids get into elite colleges. No, no that's too, elitist.

I guess Michelle Obama and Deval Patrick (both originally working class kids from Chicago; one went to Princeton and the other to Harvard and they've done quite well in life with those elite educations) can thank God they didn't go to ARHS

Social justice indeed!

Anonymous said...

Kids are off limits, whether they are in a family with a school administrator, a teacher, a school committee member or a school employee. The fact that people actually believe talking about where kids go to school should be fair game on this blog is evidence of how low this blog (or any blog) could go. Would I want a school committee member's kid to attend private school? Probably not, but I guess it would depend. It would certainly affect the way I understood their critique of the public schools. Would I want a school committee member who was on staff at a private school? why not?

But do I think it is appropriate to discuss on a public blog children in our community? NO. And I would hope every parent would feel the same way.

Amherst, where are you headed??

Anonymous said...

hey did you ever think that maybe, just maybe the principal-in- question's child doesn't want to go to the school where dad is in charge?

Anonymous said...

Way back on this thread was talk about Amherst kids doing better than the state average on the MCAS. While this might look like a great measure for some, it is not a high measurement. For groups struggling to pass MCAS, we indeed have to put more resources there to help. At the ES level at least, I believe our district is doing this with afterschool help. But many of the kids who are not struggling breeze through these state exams with no problems, and keep our averages up. But these children would probably do well anywhere. Does that mean they are reaching their potential? No way...we should be shooting higher for all kids.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:55 PM

Give us a break with the faux outrage. The conversation was about the decision of parents.

But nice try on attempting to distort things.

For me, for a person who publicly rips School Committee members for damaging our schools simply through their utterances and actions and who then sends his/her kids outside of the school system, well, they got some 'splainin' to do.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Abbie,

The upper level Env Science course is not being offered any more. (2009-2010 was the last year for it.)

Also, the Biology courses (both college prep and honors) are just two trimesters (not three). Did you see it written with three somewhere on the web site? If so please tell me where so I can fix it. The AP Biology is 3 terms, but not the others.

In terms of kids deciding whether they like Biology or not before they choose AP, one of the reasons for offering an integrated course in 9th grade is to give kids an introduction to Biology, Chemistry, and Physics so that they will have an idea of the type of questions pursued in each discipline.

ken said...

Anonymous 6:38: It's important to understand that the state requires MCAS data to be disaggregated by race, social class, ESL, Special Education, Title 1 and other things. No one who knows about MCAS speaks of aggregate scores only anymore. If a particular subgroup is named as doing better in Amherst than in the state, it is only the scores of that particular group being compared, and no other students scores are factored into that comparison.

My experience has been that there's far too much guesswork, anecdotes-for-facts, cherrypicking research and offhand explaining away hard evidence, which together pass for real data on this blog, and it sidetracks, if not prevents a real, substantive discussion of issues affecting students in our schools.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:32 here again.

I think my comments are being distorted a little. I am not arguing for abandoning prep for college math or AP courses in general. I am merely suggesting that a public school, with its limited resources and diverse student body, cannot be all things to all people. We have a number of strong AP offerings. We have a math curriculum that prepares kids for college math, should they have that desire/ambition, and an additional one (as I understand it) that serves the needs of students without such an interest. That seems pretty good to me -- strikes a decent balance.

But to paint the entire high school as deficient because it doesn't make all kids go through calculus and doesn't offer AP Chem? That strikes me as a very narrow focus on the needs of just a few kids.

Kids of all incomes from Amherst can and do pursue challenging curricula that prepare them well for elite colleges -- just look at the list of colleges we already send our kids to:

Without more "data" to support the contention that ARHS is somehow failing our kids in this regard, I will remain baffled at the disproportionate focus on these two issues.

Abbie - I'm not sure I understand your comments about Environmental Science. Are you suggesting that if a choice needs to be made among AP courses, Chemistry should be favored over Environmental Science? I think that's an entirely reasonable argument about which I have no opinion.

Anonymous said...

Hey, hasn't anybody told you guys?

You can't be having a serious discussion about curricular choices in our schools HERE.

It's way too negative here. You are simply providing aid and comfort to the enemy HERE.

Could you move this conversation over to They care so much more about the schools there.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

It is Friday night ... so I am going to be brief here ... but I want to say I've read all the comments people have written, and I really appreciate the tone and dialogue. Thanks to the many who've used their names and posted -- Ken, Nina, Joel, Abbie, Mike, Janet (perhaps others I've forgotten) -- and those who have posted anonymously yet respectfully. I really like having the range of voices. I am going to do a post later tonight that responds to various issues raised here. Also, Ken - thanks for reminding me that I didn't post that math article -- I was on vacation at the time so I missed it initially, and then I started on a long blog post to summarize my reaction and I didn't finish it (but will do so this weekend and then post it).

I think it is great that we all care about math. I think it is also clear that all people posting on this blog want great math for all kids. I think we should all keep that in mind - even when we have different ideas about the strengths/weaknesses of our current math and how/what to do (if anything).

Nina Koch said...


You might be interested in this report from out of Johns Hopkins:
Effective Programs in
Elementary Mathematics:
A Best-Evidence Synthesis

It's a review of multiple studies. The conclusion supports your contention that choice of curriculum is not nearly as important as the daily practices within the classroom. That's why professional development is so important, to help teachers reflect on their practice. There's going to be a renewed emphasis on that this year in the district, with something known as "instructional rounds" and I am really looking forward to it. I wish you were still in the district!

Anonymous said...

This blog has become a must-read for anyone who wants to stay informed about what's going on in Amherst. Catherine has her bias about the schools, but it's responded to and challenged by the regular commenters. And I think that that's healthy.

What I see going on here simply does not fit the caricature of her and of this blog that I read elsewhere. I think that one can learn a lot here. And I suspect that many more people in Amherst visit here than admit that they visit here.

So, as a regular reader, I thank the commenters here, especially those who have some recent experience in the education field, and most especially the dissenters like Nina and others, for taking the time to create the sheer volume of intelligent content available here. And, yes, people mix it up here. So what?

OK, sometimes it crosses certain lines, but the dialogue almost always has a vibrancy to it that I find nowhere else in Amherst. Whenever Catherine leaves the political scene and takes her blog with her, I am quite sure that we will miss it.

I always say that I would not want a School Committee with 5 Catherine Sandersons, but one Catherine Sanderson has brought something interesting and provocative to the table not seen before. We'll soon see what the voters think.

Rich Morse

Abbie said...

to anon@ 1:32

Maybe you are reading a different blog where someone(s) "paints the entire high school as deficient because it doesn't make all kids go through calculus and doesn't offer AP Chem" because I haven't seen that here. Here I see a mostly respectful discussion about math and science. What we can't even talk/write about it without being accused of painting the school entirely badly?

There are all kinds of views blogged here. It seems to me that if everyone (kids/parents/teachers) is fully aware of what limitations (IF ANY) IMP presents then I don't have a problem with offering it.

I am also not pushing for AP Chem, I am just curious why those who seem to be against AP Chem don't seem to be bothered by our current offering of AP Environmental Science, for example. Why is an AP Chem an 'elitist, smarty-pants, kid-of-pushy Ivy wanta-be parents' class but AP Environmental Sciences seems fine.

The Biology options just strike me as usual and closing some doors prematurely (which could be opened again in college) and uses more resources than the typical sequence (biology then AP biology).

Pretty much my only big problem with the HS is trimesters, having no direct experience yet. The rest is largely curiosity. I think HS should prepare and motivate/inspire kids for college (and that doesn't mean they have to go), AND it should expose kids to really cool stuff that they might want to pursue in college. It just so happens that a lot of the cool stuff (at least in science) tends to come after kids learn the basics and are in advanced classes.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My quick response:

Rich - ummm, thanks, I think?!? I'm glad you, and some others, have found this blog useful in some way. I've enjoyed (for the most part) doing it, and I've certainly learned tons. I can't imagine being on SC without having a blog that allows this type of dialogue, actually ... though I will certainly not continue the blog once I'm no longer on the SC (which, as you note, may be as of next spring).

Abbie - I continue to be surprised by the number of people who see questioning practices/curricula (e.g., Investigations, trimesters, extensions, no AP chemistry) as bashing teachers or saying our schools are terrible. But I think that reaction, and that portrayal of me/my blog/my supporters, has been effective in helping to decrease people's willingness to even question our (somewhat unique) educational practices, which I don't think is good at all.

In terms of your list of things to improve -- I'd be VERY happy if the HS moved to semesters, added AP chem and AP stats (so that our kids would have the same options as kids in other MSAN districts), and allowed kids to take biology in 9th grade. Those are all standard things that most high schools we compare ourselves to have, and they don't seem to me to be unrealistic expectations.

Anonymous said...

Would someone explain to me what my kid, a rising senior, has been missing by being on the IMP track in math?

She's testing well. She did reasonably well in a math class in a 14 week private school program last fall populated mainly by prep school kids. She thinks she wants to be a science major in college.

So how specifically did we goof with IMP at ARHS? I'm just not getting it.

Rich Morse

Michael Jacques said...

Rich M.

I don't think anyone thinks you have made a mistake. To be quite frank I don't think we really know. Your daughter may become, for many of us, a great source of information in determining how we feel about IMP.

As an engineer IMP concerns me yet as a parent of a child less interested in math it is something I will learn about. Maybe for my child this will be the type of curriculum that motivates her to learn math.

So as IMP is something I have no real knowledge of I want to learn more before I have to make that choice in a few years. I would love to hear from parents who's kids took IMP and went on to major in math, sciences, or engineering.

Nina Koch said...

Hi Michael,

Take a look at this highly selective magnet school:

California Academy of Math and Science

They require IMP for their kids:

"Students take a specialized math program called the Interactive Math Program or IMP, for short. Students taking IMP learn about algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, probability and logic each year through an integrated approach. After three years of IMP, students are prepared for university calculus in their senior year."

For science, 9th graders are required to take an integrated course and also engineering. They take Biology in 10th grade, Chemistry in 11th grade and Physics in 12th grade.

Anonymous said...

Yes Rich- you made a HUGE mistake in choosing a math program that fits better with your child's style of learning rather than caving into the intense pressure to make students learn through the cookie-cutter approach espoused by the supporters of the College Board monopoly.